Of Monsters and Media

Of Monsters and Media

A dragon demon doing its thing

It's been a minute, so I thought I'd stop by and share a rundown of what's been going on around adventureland.

First and foremost, my goodness folks, young children are productivity's bane. Particularly during this most nasty season of RSV, flu, colds, and the general onslaught of snotty awfulness. Daycares, it turns out, are perfectly willing to be petri dishes but tend not to deal with the consequences - not that I'm blaming those saints who watch our toddler and a dozen others every weekday: if there's one group I'm thanking this holiday season, it's you - and our little ones have been home a lot over the last couple months.

Doubly thankful, too, that it's not been for anything too serious. Some hot chocolate, some couch snuggles, and a few thousand watches of Frozen works wonders.

Beyond dad duties, I've kicked up a weekly Kingdom Death campaign, the dark and deadly game proving doable after the kiddos go to bed: 90 minutes is more than enough time for a dance with some demon or other, a close shave with the great beyond, and some anxious dice rolling. Over-costed and with some questionable art choices? Absolutely. An emergent story-telling triumph? You betcha.

Okay - on to the adventure bits:

Drop Zone is now up and out, in its AI Audio version, on Youtube. The rest of Sever Squad's going to be following over the next couple of weeks. Check it out here:

Why YouTube?

Because listeners are everywhere, and I'm a fan being where my listeners/readers are. I'll be uploading the full audiobooks there, and while ads will no doubt get in the way at some point, the ebooks, print, and for-purchase audiobooks (on Google Play) are always there for distraction-free enjoyment.

As for the human-narrated editions, you'll see those popping up on storefronts over the next few months, and I'll pipe up about each one here.

A New Adventure nears - look for a pre-order for the ebook to pop up in the next couple weeks! This is the start of a new fantasy series. Scroll down a few lines for an excerpt.

For those waiting for The Wild Nines sequels, those are coming too. I'm spending some extra time in the editing workshop, making sure to maintain continuity, voice, and all that good stuff. As an aside, it's why I now prefer to complete series in one shot rather than bounce around. It's a lot harder having to pull everything back into memory.

You'll also see Wild Nines show up as the next AI Audio series, so if that's your thing, expect it before the holidays.

And now, an excerpt from the as-yet-unnamed Fantasy series. What's below is an early draft, so things may change between this and the final version. Enjoy:

A mountain pass, an ominous gate

The Guardian of the Isles, Protector of the Aegis, Hero to the People, requested the strawberry tart. Waited for it. The blistering kitchens scalloped in the mountainside treated her addition to their evening dinner onslaught at first with disdain then, with Ami's gentle clarification as to the tart’s intended, with reverence.

At least she waited in twilight. A cold black iron rail her stalwart companion on the overlook serving as the front entrance to those few who braved the food factories above Noctia's busiest, only city. The brush-pocked slope fell away below her, curling out towards the ocean. Along the way, rock and plant gave way to sculpted stone and lantern light. Every home, every building sloping their stone dew-catching roofs towards rain barrels.

Ami ran her hands along her arms, tracing the orange filament on the tunic’s sleeves. Almost the same shade as the hot forges back home, the ones she worked in, laughing, not all that long ago.

Noctia’s waters held sails, each one telling its own story. To the left stuck up the sloped triangles from Kance, cutters built for beauty and speed. They could wrestle the slightest breeze and burst over the waves. Next, a rare broad leaf from Vis’s western coast, its amber sides oiled and curled, keeping the Kance ships separate from the jagged Rana knives.

Last, as ever in the largest berths, were the thick-masted Foti galleons. Cargo moving on and off, swarthy curses and sea talk rising all the way up here as a background churn.

"Guardian," came a hallowed voice behind Ami, and she turned to see a woven basket held out towards her. Face bowed, wrapped in culinary’s slight gray shift, the server looked like a supplicant. "Your request is ready."

"Then hand it to me," Ami replied, fighting off a sharper word when the server didn't move. "I'm not your lord."

"Please," the server said.

Ami looked past the pathetic as she took the basket, found the chef watching them. Hunting for a reason to knock the server around. She gave the man, covered in a day's grease and splatter, the slightest glare.

He gave her a broad grin in return while the server scampered for the safety of his next delivery.

No matter how long she lived here, Ami would never embrace Noctia's customs. And, she suspected, the chef would never stop needling her with the same.

The walk from the kitchens to her destination grew less and less civilized with every step. Noctia's forms and functions dissipated as Ami scaled the mountainside, boots crunching on fresh gravel. A necessity given yesterday's rain, the pebbles spread to keep hapless, distracted visitors from slipping off the slope side. To her right, a single tied rope separated Ami from a long fall. Every so often a Foti-crafted post rose from the rock, a torch burning near Ami's eye level to light the way.

The minimal measures meant, at dusk, few braved the perilous pathway. The way back would be deserted. If Ami decided to return that evening at all.
Twenty minutes from the kitchen—Ami had timed the walk enough times to be sure—the path stopped, turning hard left into the mountain itself. No cavern greeted Ami, but instead a filigreed purple-and-black smear. Noctia's straight edge abhorrence made Ami feel almost queasy up close: the arches and swirls in the gateway defying any easy focal point. Someone, when Ami first came here so long ago, had delivered some exhausting speech as to why Noctia did this. There was a why, though the late hour hid the reasoning in her memory.

Holding the basket in her left hand, Ami turned her attention instead to the pair scrambling up at her approach.

Playing cards scattered around a low burning fire at the gateway's entry, the heat a welcome touch as the ascent cooled things enough for Ami to tug her cloak a bit tighter. A meal's remnants, two bowls, a soup pot, sat near twin stone benches. Their former occupants now faced Ami, the picture of Noctia's nonchalance.

"Guardian," said the first, standing taller than Ami, though his youth made the stance shaky. His voulge wobbled in the gravel, the curved spear's end catching the firelight like some jittery insect. "We weren't expecting you?"

The second one, older but no more sure of himself, kept both hands on his own voulge to keep it steady. Behind them, joining their food on the ground, lay two chakrams, the sharp discs doing no good in the dust.

"Who ere you expecting?" Ami replied, keeping her left hand free at her side.

"Nobody, honest," the youth said. "It's late."

"I noticed. Stand aside."

The two parted, their loose purple-and-black mail clanking at the motion. Ill-fitted. Scraps thrown up for appearances. It'd been like this last time too, near the end.

The tunnel through wasn’t far, but Ami took her time. For one, the level ground marked a break from the uphill climb and the cave gave her cover from the wind. Mostly, though, she reserved the minutes for the carvings.

Faces and years etched into the sloping cinnamon-colored walls. Done in detail, the heads emerged from the stone into sharp relief, showing the people who had done so much for so many. By now, Ami knew them all, and she repeated each name as she went, though the faces covered both sides. In a few more, so she'd heard, they'd begin doubling up, adding another row below the old ones.

If things lasted that long, anyway.

Claiming a patch at the right side's end, haloed in Ami's torch's glow, was the one face she really knew. Somehow, they'd managed to capture the kindness in Catya's hard features. Determination mingling with the exhaustion already setting in, even though the sculpting came a month into her . . . what, would you call it a reign?
Ami sniffed, stuck the torch in the holder at the exit. She'd pick it up again on the return. More efficient than lining the whole tunnel with the things.

She wouldn't need the light for this last stretch.

The cave ended in a steep bowl, the rock sweeping away beneath her into a cozy crater. Steps, complete with another rope handrail, marched down towards the crater's center. Above, Sichi, the pink moon, took its place in a cloudless sky. Lucky. Not even Ami was cynical enough to deny the wonder the moon's light made of the crater's bed.

Lelune, purple six-petaled plants growing near the ground, stretched and bloomed in Sichi's glow. The crater wore a violet carpet, glimmering across the bowl until the steeper edges made a sloppy edge. Dart bugs feasted on the miracle, blue lines appearing for instants as they went from one blossom to another.

If she didn't have a tart to deliver, Ami would've stayed up there for an hour just watching. Maybe she would still, after dessert. After Catya.

Her left hand, freed from its torch duties, found its way to the hilt at Ami's waist. Just touching the wrapped metal helped, as it always had. Stability, defense, death, all in Ami's control.

Thus buttressed, she took the steps down at a near skip, her cloth boots scuffing each step before sliding on to the next. No gravel here, and the stolid stone spoke to her as it always did. A hard language to learn, an easy one to use.

The crater's center held a domed cap, a loose mushroom cloak. This being Noctia, the dome matched the blooming flowers, with black metal lacing the Kance-crafted canvas. The metal ran down off the dome's edges into the rock, both keeping the cloth secure and serving as a funnel to any visitors.

A single entry, single file, with a single guard stationed outside.

Unlike the buffoons on the ridge, this one, a full on Ward, stood in full regalia. Voulge stamped on the stone, chakrams looped on her back, and the small circle shield tied tight to the woman's right wrist. Ami found no fear in the face looking at her, straight in the shadow cast by the flowers.

No torches out here. Not tonight.

"Guardian," the Ward said. "You're late."

"The kitchens were busy," Ami replied, then tilted her head. "Your friends at the guardhouse said I wasn't expected?"

"They don't listen," the Ward said. "A problem to be corrected." She tilted the voulge towards the weapon on Ami's waist. "Remove it."

"You're new?"

The Ward blinked. Definitely new, then. Might as well cut her a break.

"I'm Catya's guardian," Ami said. "She's got nothing to fear from me."

"All the same—"

"I'm not taking this off." Ami kept it measured, raised the tart's basket. "It's getting late. Move."

Every new Ward meant another power struggle. Every time, now, went faster than the last. None had forced Ami's chosen from her hip, and this one wouldn't be the first.

The Ward came to the same conclusion, stepping aside and waving Ami through. Ami gave her a nod as she went past. Enough politeness to ensure a smooth encounter the next time.

The inside had a miserable air. Always did, save the very first time Ami's eyes graced the Wound. Then, she'd been awed by legend made real. Now, her stomach curled and a familiar frown found her face.

In the crater's exact center sat a pit wide enough to swallow Ami whole. A perfect circle, one with a bottom nobody could see. Torches dropped inside would vanish into unknowable depths. Noctia histories claimed some brave, doomed souls had tried to climb down, only to have their ropes pulled up, the explorers never seen again.

Sitting in a cushioned chair overlooking the Wound, as she had been without ceasing for the last eleven years, was Catya.

"Throne treating you well?" Ami asked.

A bad joke, and one Catya treated with a slow sigh. Or maybe it was the wind, free to whistle inside through the dome's loose metal fence.

Ami felt more stares on her as she went in, two other Wards watching from the dome's far sides. These two held to the same high vigilance, their arms at ready.
Not, Ami suspected, because of her.

"I have a surprise," Ami said, grabbing the small side table, dragging it over near Catya, the pit, and her chair. "Know what day it is?"

Catya looked Ami's way at that, a slow turn, wispy white hair blowing across her face. Was there a smile in there, or was Ami imagining things?

Ami opened the basket, took out the tart and the two Foti heaters. She cracked each one, the thin sticks melding minerals and steaming for several magic minutes. Ami rested the tart on top, then glanced back into the basket for utensils.
Only one set, but that wasn't the problem—on the road, Ami, Catya, and the others shared everything—what had Ami's hand hesitating was a covered cup. On top sat a small note scribbled on thin Tamas paper.

She'll eat this. Enjoy the tart.

Ami felt a hand on her own, saw the weathered skin, the rough nails, the weak grip. She followed Catya's arm up to her shawled shoulder, to the broad necklace. Bronzed and mottled, the band held seven small stones, each one dim.
So faint now. So fast.

Catya put up a genuine smile as she drank the cup, a thin version of the tart's filling. Ami, after reconciling with herself that the tart shouldn't go to waste, scarfed the dessert with just enough skill to keep the strawberry from blobbing all over her.

In between bites, Ami talked. She ran over Noctia's gossip, visitors of note, the ongoing conflict between Whent and Rana. Catya listened, said nothing.
She hadn't spoken in a while. That happened to every Aegis, or so Ami had been told. What they didn't say was how close to the end the silence meant. A year? Several?
Or less?

As she finished the tart, Ami slowed her stories. Catya's loose smile fell to a concentrated frown, her friend's eyes falling to the pit.

The Dark Below. That's what Noctia called it, whatever lay down there. The name seemed to whisper as Ami thought it, a harsh sound, a blade scraped against the rock. Ami leaned towards the pit, looking down into its yawning black, her left hand reaching out and gripping Catya's.

The sound came again. Not a wind's whisper this time, no. With it came footsteps, the Wards moving closer. One set aside their voulge to take up a chakram. Ami kept hold of Catya's hand.

The scrabbling grew louder, closer, and more frantic. Something yelped, hissed, gurgled. Catya drew in a sharp breath, and the golden stone on her bracelet flared ever so slightly.

The sounds ceased. No whimpers, no dying cry.

The Wards relaxed. Ami sat back on her heels.

"You've still got it," Ami said. "Happy birthday, Catya."

Her friend, the Aegis, protector of the Seven Isles, turned her withered face towards Ami. A question lit Catya's eyes.

"Thirty," Ami answered. "Still a youngster."

Not a soul in the room thought Catya would see thirty-one.

A.R. Knight

A.R. Knight